Islas Ballestas
Islas Ballestas

The bus we’re taking, “Peru Hop,” stops first in the town of Paracas a few hours south of Lima. There’s not a whole lot there, a couple of fancy beach resorts, a main strip of restaurants for tourists, and a couple of low and mid-range hotels. Peru Hop promotes a trip out to the Ballestas Islands, a two hour boat tour to islands that are sometimes called “the poor man’s Galapagos” and are primarily known as a source of guano. I didn’t put much stock in the “Galapagos” comparison, but it sounded interesting and it might be a good chance to see some interesting birds. Plus it was cheap, only 50 soles per person – about US $15 for us in 2018.

We had a great time. I was too skeptical.

Cactus geoglyph

Cactus geoglyph
Cactus geoglyph

On the way out you pass a geoglyph that dates back to the Paracas culture. This culture predates the more famous Nazca culture and dates back at least 2000 years. The geoglyph is a large carving of a cactus, easily visible from the water and probably of ceremonial significance. It’s lasted over 2000 years and seems to be pretty well preserved. I wonder what we’ve built that will last 2000 years…

The islands

Penguins

Humboldt penguins
Humboldt penguins

The first thing we saw as we approached the islands, was a curious sea lion in the water watching us. They’re very cute even if they are ruthless predators. Next we saw a small flock of Humbolt penguins trying to enter the water. They’re even cuter. The were perched on a ledge covered with mussels and big red crabs trying to figure out how to get into the water (and being put off by the noisy boat I’m afraid.)

Sea lions and seals

Sea lion
Sea lion

There are two kinds of seals living on the islands, fur seals, and sea lions. We mostly saw sea lions. They were basking on the rocks, climbing up out of the water, swimming around looking at us, and trying to catch the big red crabs. Pretty darn cute, they seemed to sit on the rocks in a deliberate “look at me, aren’t I cute?” pose.

Other birds

Inca Tern
Inca Tern

The are also Peruvian boobies (Sula variegata, “piquero”), Peruvian pelicans (Pelecanus thagus), Inca terns (Larosterna inca, “zarcillo”), and Guanay cormorants (Leucocarbo bougainvillii, “guanay”). The boobies were raising babies, and the cormorants were nesting so we got to see bird babies! Sadly boobie babies are not as cute as penguins.

Guano

Guano dock
Guano dock

These islands were once covered in guano several meters deep. Mostly produced by the guanay cormorants and the peruvian boobies the guano was basically strip mined and produced huge income for Peru and Chile. To the point where Chile started a war and seized the guano resources of Bolivia and Peru. Did you know Bolivia once had a coast? But I digress. Afterwards these islands were used sustainably to produce guano for Peruvian farmers. Unfortunately due to overfishing and the ongoing collapse of the Pacific fishery, the guano production also collapsed. At this point they harvest maybe 60 cm of guano off of the tops of these islands every 5-8 years. Still 10 cm of new guano per year covering these islands is a pretty impressive pile of bird shit.

In conclusion

I’m glad we went, we got to see a lot of fauna up close, it didn’t smell as bad as I’d feared, and it was well worth the time and minimal expense.